No Money, No Problem! Team Teaching Lifts a Failing School—10 Years Running

Inside the collaborative teaching model at Arizona's Mesquite Elementary School.
Regular meetings are just the beginning of the teacher collaboration that has enabled Mesquite Elementary School in Tucson to excel. (Stock image. Photo: Getty)
Oct 28, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

In the recently-released documentary, TEACH, director Davis Guggenheim follows four teachers throughout a single school year. The educators featured range in experience from veterans to relative newcomers, but all struggle to answer the essential classroom question: How do I teach these lessons to a class of 35 kids who each learns differently?

When you have only 30 percent of your students passing that basic measure, we knew we had to change some things.Keeping accelerated students engaged, while making sure struggling students get the attention they need, while staying on schedule to finish the textbook by the end of the school year, is an almost impossible balancing act that’s played out in classrooms across the country every day.

When failing in that struggle, the faculty of Mesquite Elementary School in Tucson, AZ, came up with an innovative solution—a program they call Reteach and Enrich that brings the school's teachers together to work as a team.

Within each grade level teachers create a curriculum map, which includes weekly objectives. At the end of each week, an assessment is given to the students to test their knowledge of the concepts they were taught. The teachers meet regularly to discuss the previous week's lesson and decide which of their students mastered it and which need more time to become proficient in it.

The program is partly based on a method used by a Yuma district school. Every day from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m., the students who struggled attend a Reteach class that allows them to spend more time practicing the basic concepts. This is taught by the teacher who had the most success in imparting that lesson to his or her students. The remaining teachers rotate providing instruction for the Enrichment classes for the students who excelled.

Dabney claims that because all the kids, no matter how accelerated, finds themselves in a Reteach class from time to time, the stigma of needing extra help is removed. "You can ask pretty much any student on campus, if they've ever been in Reteach and every single one of them will say 'yes,'" she says. "It's part of what we do to make sure the kids have the skills that they need. So they don't ever look at it as a negative thing."

Katie Dabney, Mesquite’s principal, says that before the model was first introduced almost 10 years ago the school’s standardized test scores "were pretty dismal. In fact, our third grade class was probably in the 30th percentile," she says. "When you have only 30 percent of your students passing that basic measure, we knew we had to change some things."

But just six months after initiating Reteach and Enrich, Mesquite’s test scores bounded upwards, earning it the label of an “excelling” school by Arizona standards. Today, it remains among the highest achieving schools in the state, even after 75 percent of its capital budget was slashed. (Arizona is already among the lowest spending states when it comes to education.)

On the surface, the plan looks seamless, but Dabney, who was a third-grade teacher at the school when the program was first introduced, says that initially it was an adjustment for the faculty. "One of the things that was really difficult is that you give up some of your ownership of the teaching to somebody else," she says. "You're letting your kids go to somebody else and trusting them that they're going to be doing what they need to do to get your kids where they need to be. So it really was a way for us to strengthen our culture and develop a stronger collaboration within the school because we had to rely on each other."

The model also allows teachers to help each other more effectively strategize how to reach students who are encountering difficulty. Dabney says, "You can talk specifically about individual kids, and that student may be in my class, but everyone else on my team has worked with them and they know that student."

The collaborative spirit of Mesquite extends beyond its own campus. Dabney is also responsible for her school district's invention Beyond Textbooks, an online wiki that allows teachers from other schools to share lesson plans and resources that have proven to be successful with their own students.

"Every single curriculum standard, in every single content area, in grades K through 12 has its own wiki page now," Dabney says. It has expanded to include 80 other school districts in Arizona, and she recognizes the possibility that it could spread nationwide. "As we go to Common Core, we see Beyond Textbooks as helping other states, because we'll all be teaching the same curriculum now."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.